Sunday, September 26, 2021

Clean-up Blips - Janitorial Random Encounters

I had a dream last night that I was a rat-man in a dungeon that human adventurers invaded.  Lacking the strength to confront them and their hunting-cats directly, I worked to douse their light sources, lead them into ambushes, and change the environment behind them to make it more confusing.

It occurs to me that this is basically the life of a sensor-blip-style random encounter, where they linger in the dungeon near parties rather than moving to confront them directly.  And the idea of having random encounters behind the party "clean up" the dungeon is one I hadn't considered before; I know the idea of "dungeon clean-up crew" monsters appeared in some of the older books, but I took it as an ecological consideration, something that happened between adventures rather than during.  It amuses me, the image of a crew of ratman janitors armed with a mops and buckets, doing their part to fight the humans by hauling away the bodies, cleaning up the blood, erasing the chalk or charcoal graffiti, trying to put out the oil fires, maybe even moving the furniture around so that they'll have a harder time finding their way back out of the dungeon.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Wilderness and Attrition Revisited

Back in 2016, I wrote a post arguing in favor of shifting the resource model in wilderness adventuring towards that of the dungeon adventure, with spells recovered only in civilization.  I'm still not sure that that's wrong, but I have come to look at a piece of evidence that I used there in a slightly different light.

I noted that parties on foot were likely to have only one or two random encounter rolls per day, with less than one encounter per day in expectation, and consequently parties will tend to have full spells almost every encounter.  I have several new observations on this:

One: While this is true of ACKS, where entering a new hex triggers a random encounter roll, it isn't true of B/X (as represented by OSE) or OD&D.  In both of these, you only get one encounter roll per day by default.  Not sure about AD&D.  But in OD&D and B/X, parties on foot and mounted parties get the same number of encounters per day (less than one in expectation), and if you choose to interpret OD&D's spell recovery the way that most people do, this means you're at full spells every encounter there too.

Two: In ACKS, this might be viewed as a "circuit breaker" or comeback mechanic, where a party which is too poor to afford horses, or which has had its horses lost, stolen, or eaten, experiences a lower rate of encounters per day and is consequently more likely to survive.  Similar to how the wilderness evasion rules favor small parties, to make wilderness encounters survivable (but not winnable) for low-level characters who cannot yet afford mercenaries; if you just hit 5th and only have one fireball per day, you can still do wilderness adventures, you just have to take them slow and cautious.

Three: If going slow makes the resource situation easier, then hopefully it's a choice which should have tradeoffs.  The obvious resource being spent here is time.  Rations and starvation in ACKS are pretty forgiving.  So the main way time is expensive, outside factors like NPCs acting / clocks ticking, is costs-over-time of mercenaries, henchmen, and cost of living.  But linking in-game time to out-of-game time seems like it too would heavily discourage overly slow, cautious travel...  and I don't know that the bookkeeping would be any more onerous, really.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

From the Archive: Adventures from Pegasus Magazine

I was revisiting Hill Cantons' AD&D and Apocalypse index and noticed a page I hadn't read before, comparing population density between Greyhawk and the Wilderlands of High Fantasy.  One of the links in the post, to supplementary material for the Wilderlands published in Pegasus Magazine (which I hadn't heard of), seemed dead.  So I went poking around on and am happy to report that mentioned pdfs are still available here.  I skimmed them as I was pulling them down, but haven't read them in detail yet.  Most of them seem to be site-based adventures around 40 pages in length.  Some include pre-generated characters.  Several cover islands.  Some of the stats (particularly in the later entries) look to be for a percentile system rather than for D&D.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Traveller's Terms and HBR's Tours of Duty

I had an interesting text-chat conversation with a former coworker recently (excerpted):

me: I suppose maybe that is a good argument for me going to XXX next rather than YYY...  Just to see if XXX is the way that I think it is (which was part of why I wanted to go to $CURRENT_EMPLOYER - to see it).  The tourist approach to career planning.
them: Ha, I like how you describe your career strategy!  Kinda reminds me of Reid Hoffman's tour of duty

It's a pretty good article.

I have thought about careers and life in terms of Traveller's terms for quite some time; my blogger profile used to have what I estimate my Traveller stats at, including terms in various occupations.  When I'm at a new company, I think of staying a full four years as a good solid run; I've only done it once so far, and it was a pretty darn successful four years, definitely worth an extra benefit roll (with a shift in company direction in the final year or so which I did not think promising).  More commonly, after 18-36 months, if things are looking mediocre, I move on.  Not a failed survival roll, but more like a failed roll to promote.

So I think it's a little funny to see a serious publication like the Harvard Business Review take basically the same perspective, following in the footsteps of some geeks in the '70s trying to model careers.

Monday, July 26, 2021

The Caller and the Vietnam Hypothesis

In order to command well, we should know how to submit. He who submits with good grace will eventually become worthy of command.

- Cicero, On the Laws.

There was a post on the osr subreddit the other day asking about the caller.  This post is an elaboration of my comments on that post.

In what seems to be my idiom lately, I decided to go have a look at what OD&D and 1e said about the caller, and was a bit surprised at what I found.

OD&D makes only a brief mention of the caller on page 12-13 of Book 3, where there is a dialogue between the DM and the caller, in which the caller describes a series of actions the party takes during exploration.Curiously, none of the other players say anything.

AD&D 1e largely replaces the term "caller" with "leader". A dialogue demonstrating exploration on pages 97-100 of the 1e DMG does include separate voices for Leader Character (LC) and Other Characters (OC). The OC voice seems to do a fair bit of asking questions of the DM, undertaking combat actions, and in a few cases undertaking independent actions when separated from the party. There is also a note after one of the LC's proposals ("The other players concur") which indicates that this dialogue is perhaps not intended to capture the full discussion at the table, just what passes between the DM and players (but on the other hand, there are also lines that are more or less just other characters agreeing to a plan proposed by the leader, so the text is somewhat inconsistent). The LC does seem to have a very active role in proposing courses of action.

The 1e PHB also makes a few mention of party leaders. The heading "Obedience" on page 106 notes,

The leader and caller of a party might order one course of action while various players state that their characters do otherwise. Your DM will treat such situations as confused and muddled, being certain to penalize the group accordingly.

(emphasis mine).  It is foreign indeed to modern gaming sensibilities for any player to give orders to the party as a whole. I have often thought of callers as sort of like the chairman of a committee, responsible for keeping the party moving coherently, but perhaps "elected expedition captain" is closer to the original role.  Maybe "caller" is meant as in "shot-caller".

This doesn't seem like something that would work well with the sort of people I have historically gamed with - contrarian engineers suspicious of all authority, who can't take orders even from the people paying them without arguing (to be fair, a big part of the job is figuring out which orders are impossible and pushing back on them).  But it probably worked for some sort of player, once - but what sort?  And then I remembered that I had read of a game at West Point that used a caller in very much this commanding style (with a second-in-command even, I believe).

Maybe, like careful dungeoncrawling and Tucker's Kobolds, this commanding way of playing the caller comes out of the American experience in Vietnam, where a broad cross-section of men were exposed to giving and receiving orders as a consequence of the draft.  And like careful dungeoncrawling and Tucker's Kobolds, maybe its decline in the '80s reflects the spread of the game beyond its original audience of historical wargamers and veterans.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Current 1:1 Timescale Campaigns

So apparently I haven't been the only person taking an interest in Gygax's timekeeping lately.  I stumbled into a cluster of blogs describing three campaigns currently being run with 1:1 timekeeping:

This seems like a very natural/consistent/worthy next thrust for the OSR.  Having recovered the early rules, and made them readily available, rediscovering and repopularizing the culture of play of the early days for which those rules were intended.

It kind of tempts me to run Traveller in this style...  the most obvious difficulty is figuring out the resources available to patrons, and Striker's rules for planetary GDP would provide a very workable starting point.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Traveller and Warhammer 40k

Another product of a discussion with my father.

We played Dark Heresy (1e) together for a short campaign or two.  We more or less agree that it's a fun premise for a game, but a lousy system.

Meanwhile, Traveller is a pretty decent system, but it's hobbled by the fact that its implicit setting and expected conventions of play are unfamiliar.  There is no Appendix N of fiction in the Classic Traveller books, unfortunately.  So people misuse it for Firefly when it was meant for Space Viking and Dumarest (or so I'm told).  About the closest I've read, works of that era that get at the "Imperial Science Fiction" feel, might be Dune or Foundation.

But it's not quite true that Imperial Science Fiction has no heirs.  Warhammer 40k is also Imperial Science Fiction of a sort, though a deeply pessimistic lens.  You have a sprawling, strongly human-centric empire with subsector and planetary governments who are only loosely under the thumb of central power - just like Traveller.  You have faster than light travel which is slow, unreliable, and leaves ships isolated from each other for the duration, just like Traveller.  FTL communication exists, and it's faster than FTL travel, but still not great in either.  All three of these are features which permit characters out on the fringes much more autonomy than would otherwise be expected.  Psionics are rare, dangerous, and stigmatized, much more so than in Traveller.  How many science fiction settings have psionics at all, nevermind agreeing on the general attitude towards them?  Ship ownership by private individuals, the Rogue Traders, is rare and inherited, versus ship ownership being rare and just extraordinarily expensive in Traveller (I guess you could do multi-generation-term inherited starship loans...).  Powered armor (and the skills to use it) is also very rare and expensive in both, while both also have very heterogeneous mixes of tracked, wheeled, and grav vehicles and both energy weapons and slugthrowers in common use.  The emphasis on melee combat is surprisingly high for science fiction in both - "cutlass" is a legitimate weapon choice in both.  And the position of anti-aging treatments in both settings has some similarities; they exist, but they're rare, expensive, for the rich and powerful, probably not for your character.

I recall hearing tell that Warhammer 40k's setting had its origins in Traveller's universe, but filtered through a British black comedy 2300 AD / Judge Dredd lens.  And the more I think about it the more right it seems.

So the natural conclusion is that Traveller is probably a really darn good system for running Warhammer 40k RPGs; almost certainly better than the baroque percentile monstrosities that have been churned out in the last ten years.  And if you want modern gamers to understand Traveller's default assumptions, you could do a lot worse than describing the setting as a lot like Warhammer 40k, but less grimdark, with all the craziness dialed down to like a 3.  Yes there are space marines in powered armor and they'll probably ruin your day if you try to fight them, but under the armor they're just well-trained dudes, not centuries-old super-soldiers.  Yes the planet is a feudal technocracy and it's sort of like it's run by the Mechanicus but they're not as culty and not as cyborg.

The real question is whether you'd use Striker or the actual WH40k wargame rules to resolve small mass combats.

And hey, nothing says "To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions.  It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable" quite like death in chargen.